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By Bat Morda
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Chapter 5: The Temple of Aphrodite
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked around the camp. Xena and Lessa were both gone. It was mid morning and she couldn't figure out why no one had woken her. There was noting in the fire ring except cold ashes. Annoyed, she began to look around camp for some indication as to where her friend and the archer might have gone.
Her friend. A guilty smile crept to the bards lips, almost lover. Just as memories of Xena's kiss swept through her she heard the murmur of voices on the morning breeze. Creeping silently through the forrest she stopped behind a large tree to listen.
"Okay sister, you've proved your point. No need to rub it in." It was a male voice, a melodic voice and one Gabrielle had never heard before.
"I'm not the one rubbing anything anywhere." Lessa replied with a chuckle. "I just happen to have a sense of style about these things and mother said she didn't mind."
Curious Gabrielle peered around the tree, staying out of sight and saw Lessa's black and green armor gleaming in the morning light. A light breeze gently blew the mane of sunset hair- she looked absolutely beautiful. Sitting astride Socrates, she was talking to a man equally magnificent. He had to be one of the most handsome men Gabrielle had ever seen.
"Do they know who you are?" The man asked. He was such a contrast to his sister. While both were beautiful, he reminded Gabrielle of a sculpted vase- that you'd admire from a distance where Lessa reminded Gabrielle of a favorite shirt- one you'd want to keep near you. His blond hair hung loose almost meeting his shoulders, azure blue eyes were clear even at this distance. He was muscular but had a soft appearance as well. Dressed in white, he seemed to radiate light as he leaned against a tree talking to his sister.
"Of course not. You're acting like I've never done this beforequot;
"But you haven't ever done this beforequot;
"But that's not something you need to worry about. Look brother dear- you had your shot at this. Several as I recall, an entire quiver full, and you blew it every time. Just let me handle this- okay?"
The man crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "I wouldn't say I blew it. There were certainly realizations madequot;
"And kept bottled like an aging wine. Aged wine is good, wonderful- I love the stuff but there is a point that you've got to drink it, enjoy it or you realize that you've been aging it for nothing. Trust me."
Gabrielle drew back behind the tree, keeping out of sight, listening intently.
"It isn't that I don't trust you, Stacy. I just want you to be careful. Xena is a very dangerous woman. I've asked around- I know what I'm talking about."
Stacy? Gabrielle thought to herself. That must be Lessa's real name.
"Believe me, Xena is the least of my worries at the moment. If you were even slightly perceptive, you'd be worrying about me falling for Gabrielle myself." Gabrielle's head shot back round the tree. Lessa tossed an apple to her brother who fed it to the zebra, never taking his eyes off his sister. "Don't worry," she continued with a light laugh, "I was joking. I adore Gabrielle, and Xena too- but I'm not falling for either of them. Frankly I'm more concerned with avoiding Callisto if you don't mind. Not that she wasn't entertaining mind you, but she's well a bitquot; Finally Lessa shrugged, "sick for my taste."
"I warned you about that too, as I recall." He replied smiling gently at his sister's frown. "You still have the arrow?"
"Of course I do." Gabrielle was surprised to see all of Lessa's weapons on the zebra's blanket saddle. She picked up her scabbard and pulling at a leather thong extracted a small white arrow from a hidden compartment in it's side. "But as I told you before I've no intention of using it. There is no doubt in my mind that these two people are very well aware of how much they're in love with each other. If Xena weren't so convinced she'd frighten Gabrielle away by approaching her she would have, and if Gabrielle weren't so ah, clueless she'd know that."
"Clueless! Is that what she thinks of mequot; It was not until Gabrielle looked around the tree again, that she realized she'd spoken out loud. The beautiful man was gone and she was face to face with Lessa's boots. She looked up at the archer who was looking down, a frown on her otherwise beautiful face.
"You are supposed to be asleep, Gabrielle." Lessa's tone surprised Gabrielle. She almost sounded like Xena. Patient, tolerant, very mature and not terribly amused. Gabrielle had to remind herself that she was actually older than the archer.
"Well I'm sorry to disappoint you, Stacy."
Gabrielle swallowed nervously as Lessa's eyes darkened at the use of her name. "So you've been here awhile, I take it?"
Gabrielle nodded, feeling both guilty and nervous now. Lessa smiled and shook her head. "Don't worry, it could have been worse." With a shrug she helped Gabrielle to her feet. "I'll apologize now Gabrielle, please don't take this the wrong way" Before she could respond the archer's lips had covered her own.
Instantly Gabrielle wanted to push her away, but realized she was frozen in place. She couldn't move, she didn't want to move. She breathed in the scent of Lessa's hair and saw the colors of the forrest swirl around her. Before she realized what she was doing she felt her arms around Lessa's back and neck, drawing her in craving more of the delicious passion ignited by lips that moved so sweetly upon her own. This can't be happening, she screamed to herself, wanting more of it anyway. Wanting it to be Xena.
Gabrielle woke with a start, confused, sighing with relief as she focused on Xena's face above her own.
"Are you alright?" Xena asked, her hand still resting on the bards shoulder from shaking her awake.
Gabrielle looked around, it was full light, probably mid-morning. Suddenly unsure of just how much recent history was a dream she answered cautiously. "It's nothing- just a strange dream."
"Must have been a good one." Xena smiled, "from the sound of it anyway."
Gabrielle smiled weekly. "How is your shoulder?" desperate to change the subject, and sighed inwardly when a slow sultry smile eased across the warriors face.
"Never better Gabrielle. How did you know I pulled it?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lessa step into view behind Xena shaking her head emphatically. "I just knew." Gabrielle replied, looking down to avoid the archer's relieved grin.
Xena nodded, declining to force the issue and stood. "We'll be leaving soon, you'd best get packed up."
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena as she walked across the camp site to begin readying Argo for the day's journey.
"Why did she let me sleep so late?" Gabrielle asked Lessa, deciding her dream must have been the result of unevenly cooked pheasant. She looked at Lessa curiously, her clothes were damp, her hair drying in tendrils around her face. She didn't look nearly as beautiful as she had in her dream- so it must have been a dream. Wasn't it?
"Trust me, it wasn't my idea. I suggested waking you when she almost took my head off with that round killing thingie"
"Bless you. Anyway I suspect she thinks you should be well rested- for what I can't imagine"
"Is Socrates ready to go?" Xena called to Lessa from across the clearing- her voice holding more than a hint of warning."
"Damn she has good hearing." Lessa muttered and then whistled for the zebra.
It wasn't long before the trio was ready to depart. Xena made one last look around the camp site- double checking to make sure all traces of their passage were gone. With a start, Gabrielle headed back over to the hot pool, remembering she left her shift in there. "It's okay Gabrielle," Xena smiled, walking over, "Lessa took a bath and fished it out early this morning. It's with your things." Gabrielle smiled suspecting where the archer went to avoid the wrath of Xena's chakram.
"Where would you like to ride?" Xena asked as they walked up to Argo. Gabrielle was surprised, she'd never been given a choice before.
"In front, I think." She replied, "unless you'd rather have me in the back?"
"Front is fine, Gabrielle."
Xena held Argo's reins while the bard mounted, then gently took her place in the saddle behind her. With a warning glare to Lessa, who took a sudden interest in the foliage of the forrest, they set off into the woods.
"Tonight we'd better keep an eye out for Callisto's thugs." Lessa commented, keeping her glances to the warrior and bard astride Argo to a minimum. "She usually leaves three scouts a day behind her as well as a day ahead. You might consider giving me my weapons back?"
"We'll see." Xena replied. Gabrielle turned to see Lessa's long bow and scabbard securely attached on Argo's saddle on her right, the hand crossbow on the left.
"Thank the gods it was a dream," she muttered to herself. With a sigh of relief she studied the arm around her waist, memorizing the sensations that now raced through her. It was the sweetest torture. Xena's breath against her cheek as she spoke, the delicious movement of her breasts at her back, the arm wrapped snuggly around her waist, occasionally caressing her thigh, Gabrielle was sure Argo's saddle would be soaked by the time they stopped for lunch.
Lessa rolled her eyes to the skies for the hundredth time that morning. As much of a romantic as she considered herself- the unsuccessful restraint exercised by the bard and warrior were too much to stomach- even for her. The passion crackling in the air was thick enough to slice with a two-handed broadsword. A very dull two-handed broadsword.
"Why don't I go on ahead." Lessa suggested "I'll see if"
"Good idea." Xena replied with an even gaze.
"I get the impression you don't like her." Gabrielle said after the archer had trotted off into the woods.
Xena shifted slightly behind the bard, causing a new wave of pleasurable sensations to reverberate through her lithe frame. "Well she did threaten to kill you" Gabrielle gently pried the reigns from Xena's hand and put the warrior's other arm around her waist.
"But she was honest about it."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"Well I don't hold it against her, and If I don't I don't see why you should."
Xena smiled, for the life of her, she couldn't remember ever enjoying a ride through the woods more. "So tell me about your dream?" She asked, murmuring into the bard's neck.
"Well," Gabrielle began, wondering how much to tell Xena. Before continuing something caught her eye. Gazing down at Lessa's scabbard a thin leather thong extended from the scabbard's side. Reaching down she tugged on it and a hidden compartment opened in the scabbard, a delicate tiny white arrow, falling into her hand. Gabrielle put the arrow back, grateful Xena was more interested in the back of her neck than what she was doing. "It was one of those dreams you tend to forget as soon as you wake up." She explained. "I don't think you were in it, Xena- I always remember those dreams."
They had ridden only a short distance further in silence. Xena kept her thoughts to herself, trying to put her feelings into words, then those words in to some semblance of lucidity. But Gabrielle was the one with verbal eloquence, who could turn even the simplest phrase priceless. When she finally found the words that would have to do she opened her mouth to speak, not knowing Gabrielle had been facing the same struggle. When the bard thought of Xena and all that woman meant to her, she was rendered mute. Words could not even begin to describe the depth and intensity of her love for the warrior, she doubted words ever could.
The two women laughed. "You first Xena," Gabrielle continued, "since I do most of the talking."
Xena sighed and took a deep breath. This was it. "I just want you to know how much"
"X E N Aaaaaaaa!" A powerful yell and the thunder of hooves brought the warrior's head up with a snap. Lessa charged into view at full gallop, dirt from the forrest floor spraying in every direction as Socrates skidded to a stop. There was blood on the archer's face and her shirt was torn in several places revealing more blood. "We've got big problems. Give me my weapons NOW!"
Xena nodded once, deciding. There was no mistaking the urgency in Lessa's face. This was a battle and from her bearing it was clear she could handle battles. No panic, no fear- just a sense of urgency and purpose. With fluid movements she untied the thongs that held the archer's gear to her saddle.
"I think it's the four groupies of Ares but I'm not sure."
"The four horsemen?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.
"I think so." Lessa replied easily catching her scabbard and buckling it in place across her back. "Really ugly guys on horses and one of them smells really bad."
"That'd be them." Xena quipped, tossing first the longbow then the hand cross bow to the archer.
"There's one more thing Xena." Lessa added as more hoofbeats could be heard off in the distance. "They mentioned Gabrielle by name, they're after her."
"Damn you Ares." Xena muttered then nudged the bard from Argo's saddle. "Gabrielle, go with Lessa- get out of here, I'll catch up with you."
"But I can help" Gabrielle replied protesting.
"Listen to her Gabrielle." Lessa urged, maneuvering Socrates to Argo's side. "Xena do you know where the temple of Aphrodite is? About eight miles away?" Lessa asked as she helped Gabrielle onto the zebra's back, behind her. A cloud of dust could be seen through the trees, getting closer. Shouts could now be heard and an acrid smell began to fill the air. Xena leaned down and quickly covering the bard's lips with her own kissed her fiercely.
"I love you Gabrielle," she said simply, "and I have every intention of showing you just how much. Keep her safe Lessa, your life depends on it. I'll find the temple and meet you there."
"I love you Xena," Gabrielle replied, eyes brimming with tears, "be safe."
With a yell Lessa charged Socrates away from Xena, away from the soon to be battlefield. Gabrielle hung on to Lessa for dear life, she had no idea the cute little zebra could move this fast. She was closer to the ground, and the animal was not as broad as Argo but these things were of little comfort. The gait was different and holding on to Lessa's thin body was much less comforting than Xena's muscular frame.
Moments later hoofbeats could be heard gaining on them. With a quick glance over her shoulder Lessa cursed. "Pestilence, why in Hades did it have to be Pestilence."
"What?" Gabrielle yelled, trying to be heard over the sound of breaking branches and hoof beats, her eyes watering now from the stench moving closer.
"Hang on tight." Lessa yelled, and turned sharply to the right, leaping over a fallen tree, heading up a ridge; one hand on the reins, the other removing a cross bow bolt from a belt at her waist. Continuing a complicated series of direction changes at full gallop Gabrielle was sure that they were going to be brained by a low hanging branch at any moment. The truth was, if she'd been on Argo, it would have happened. As it was the compact animal maneuvered through the forrest faster than the big mare could. With a glance around Lessa's shoulder, Gabrielle was shocked to see the archer using both hands to load the crossbow bolt into place. The reins were hanging, untended around the zebra's neck.
"You dropped the reigns!" Gabrielle shouted.
"Don't worry." Lessa shouted back, "Soc hates the smell as much as we do. "Get ready to duck when I say so."
Gabrielle nodded. When they crested the rise, she almost fainted at the stench. Charging toward them, from the side was a hideous figure astride a mangy black horse. Tattered robes, decaying armor and flesh teeming with disease headed toward them, a face grimacing in fury or delight. The figure held a small crossbow, pointed it at Gabrielle and fired. At Lessa's signal Socrates reared up, putting Lessa's body where Gabrielle's had been a moment before. She caught the bolt and shouted in fury as tiny insects began to eat into her flesh.
"Ow!" Gabrielle was nauseated at the sight, tiny black worms burrowing under the skin of the archers hand. Lessa quickly threw the bolt back, catching the horseman in the neck. It didn't seem to bother him. He put down the crossbow and picked up a whip, even at this distance Gabrielle could see that the slithering along it's surface was not due to the gentle breeze. Socrates' ears flattened back nervously.
"Duck!" Lessa shouted as the whip lashed out.
Gabrielle did as she was told and from the corner of her eye she saw the whip biting into the flesh of Lessa's arm as it wrapped around. With a mighty tug she pulled the whip from the horseman's hand, then drawing her own crossbow, fired.
The bolt sped from the archer's bow and hit it's mark, with a squish as it embedded in the horseman's left eye. He let out a blood curdling scream as both he and his horse vanished. Gabrielle sat amazed until Lessa's yelps diverted her attention.
"Ow, ow, ow, ouch, ow, ouch." She was trying to untie the whip around her forearm even as it continued to bite into her flesh. Tiny thin snakes, that appeared to be nothing save teeth and mouths attacked with a vengeance. "The back of my belt." Lessa gasped, "a black crossbow bolt- get it out and stab the whip with it."
Gabrielle found the bolt, attached securely to the archer's leather belt. She pried it from it's niche, and with a grimace at the snakes now threatening her, stabbed the whip. With a flash of light, it was gone. With a relieved sigh, Lessa nudged the zebra forward. Socrates headed through the trees, putting as much space between them and the lingering stench of Pestilence as possible.
"We should go back and help Xena." Gabrielle said, when the stench had subsided enough to risk opening her mouth.
"Xena will be fine Gabrielle, three horsemen are no match for her, and I'm afraid I've got a more immediate problem." She held up her arm for the bard to see. Nasty red welts covered her hand where the parasites had burrowed under her skin. Gabrielle felt nauseous as she saw that they were still moving. The archer's forearm was also a mess, her shirt was in bloody tatters, in two places thin strips of skin hung loosely. Continuing her examination she noted that Lessa had several nasty gashes on her neck and several large nicks and dings in her armor. She must have taken them all on before warning us, she thought.
"Not all, Gabrielle." Lessa replied, weakly. She either didn't notice or didn't care that's she'd read the bards thoughts. "Just Famine." She handed Gabrielle the reigns, "why don't you drive for awhile. Soc knows where to go." With that she slumped forward, resting her head against the zebra's neck, an arm dangling to each side. With a nod and kick of her legs, Gabrielle urged Socrates forward, keeping one eye on her charge, the other on the forrest and headed for safety.
Xena cursed silently as Pestilence broke off the attack and charged past her, but there was nothing to be done for it. Famine charged, a skeletal form on a skeletal horse wielding a rusty sword. Drawing her own sword, Xena met the attack, the clang from the striking swords showering her with sparks and setting her teeth on edge. Two more grotesque figures surged forward. The shriek of Hatred and wail of Despair deafening to her ears. Leaping from Argo's back Xena released her chakram mid flip it ricocheted off of several trees finally hitting famine's sword then plunging into the chest of Despair. The wailing was silenced and the horseman vanished. Hatred and Famine dismounted approaching her from either side. Hatred was dressed in black, pinched face distorted in an angry grimace, obsidian sword swinging menacingly. He lunged first, Xena parried the blow easily, kicking back as Famine approached from behind. The battle fully engaged, she parried their blows as she planned her own attack. She would not get many openings from Ares' henchmen, and had to make each one count.
Finally with a leap that made a mockery of the laws of physics (which thankfully had not been invented yet) Xena leaped over the head of Famine and with a fierce sprint, ran the monster through from the back, not stopping until the tip of her sword extended from the skeletal chest and impaled Hatred to a tree as well. With a flash they were gone.
"Nicely done my dear."
Xena spun at the sound of Ares' voice as the God of War stood behind her, applauding. "I'm sorry you won't get a chance at Pestilence, but the brat of Aphrodite's has already dispatched him."
Xena walked past the God to pick up her chakram from the ground formerly occupied by Despair. "Who?" She asked, not terribly interested, returning the weapon to it's proper place.
"Oh- so you don't know?" Ares smiled, "then I've already won."
"Ares, what are you talking about."
"I was worried, can you believe that, actually worried that you might form some sort of bond with that little friend of yours, Grettle- isn't it? A bond that would keep you from returning to my services forever."
Xena shrugged, disinterested in the cat and mouse game demanded by the God of War. "It's Gabrielle, and that's already happened. You're a bit late- over a year at least."
"Am I really Warrior Princess?" Ares circled, toying with her, "then explain to me why, as we speak, she is entering a temple of Aphrodite, with Aphrodite's daughter, Ecstacy?"
"What?" Xena exclaimed, loosing her facade, but too concerned to care.
"Short girl, unusual hair, rides a zebra- I'm sure you've seen her." Ares continued conversationally. "If you think her brother Cupid has an appetite for sex" He rolled his eyes skyward. "I'm surprised she's decided on your brat though," Ares smiled menacingly, "I think you're more her type."
"And you expect me to believe you?" Xena asked, regaining her composure.
"I'm not the God of Lies Xena. And yes, you are more her type- she has a thing about mastering powerful women- I've heard stories. But listen, you know me to be an honorable man. Honestly it's for old times sake, you might as well come back now, join me before the pain of seeing that little friend of yours&; well&; writing in ecstacy drives you back." He snickered.
"Ah, I see your purpose Ares." Xena purred reading the motives beneath the God's words. "I suspect Lessa, if she is who you say, has robbed you of several warlords, or you fear she can. Love is more powerful, even than you- I can see where she'd infringe on your body count. Fortunately I have more faith in Gabrielle's love for me than you do."
"You're lying there Xena. And it does not become you. That brat is infatuated with you- nothing more.What is there to love. Nice packaging surely, but beneath it all you're a warlord who quit. Someone who had it all and traded it for nothing. How long do you think she'll stick around once the novelty of conquering a warlord has worn off. You've gotten soft Xena- and soft won't hold her interest for very long. Your past, your nightmares, all the people on this planet who want and deserve your head on a platter, you're going to face up to them and when you do Gabrielle will either be long gone or die another casualty of Xena: Warrior Princess."
"If you don't mind," Xena whistled for Argo, "if there's nothing else, I'd like to go."
"No, no, by all means Xena go." Ares chuckled as he began to slowly vanish, "I'll leave a candle on for you."
"Naturally the Titans were more than a little upset to discover I was not in fact a goddess&; Socrates, is something wrong? I thought you liked the story?" The zebra stopped walking and began to bob her head up and down. Gabrielle looked around, they had been walking without any semblance of a trail for some time, and the bard had no idea of where they were. Listening to the sounds of the forrest, her ears picked up the unmistakable gurgle of running water. She carefully slid off the zebra's back, careful not to dislodge the barely conscious archer. Taking the reins in her hand she led the zebra through the dense foliage towards the water. As she'd hoped they reached an enormous outcrop of rock, water spilled from the middle of the rock face into a steaming pool below. Boulders surrounding the pool were covered with blue green algae. Lessa struggled to raise her head at the sight.
"In&;water&;now." She gasped. Gabrielle nodded and as gently as she could pulled the injured woman off the zebra. Lessa landed in a heap on her back. Gabrielle was shocked at her appearance. The parasitic welts had spread from her hand and arm to cover all visible skin. Her neck and throat throbbed painfully, bleeding in several places where the worms had eaten through the surface. Blood trailed out her nose and ears and her eyes were completely blood shot. Gabrielle was grateful she'd not eaten lunch or she was sure she'd have lost it.
"You'll be okay." She assured the archer, not entirely sure she believed it herself and dragged her by her armor the short distance to the water. Not knowing how else to proceed she rolled the archer's body completely clothed into the steaming pool.
As soon as she made contact with the water Lessa screamed and thrashed as the surface of the water began to froth and churn. Steam exploded everywhere as Lessa, struggling, sank below the surface. Afraid she'd done the wrong thing, Gabrielle reached into the water frantically searching for some sign of the archer. For long moments nothing happened, Gabrielle couldn't see any sign of her below the boiling surface. Finally, with a loud gasp Lessa's head broke the surface of the steaming pool. Gabrielle grabbed her by her armor and dragged her out, with a heave pulling the gasping woman forward. Free of the water and crawling on to her hands and knees she coughed a couple more times then sat back drinking in deep breaths.
"Thank you&; Gabrielle." She sighed, "You saved my life."
"What happened." Gabrielle was amazed. The welts, the worms all was healed. Lessa's eyes were bright and smiling, all of the bloodied gashes gone as if they'd never been. Her torn shirt was the only remnant of the battle they'd fought.
"The parasites? It's residue from Pestilence. Zeus how I despise Pestilence."
"I mean what healed you? Was it the water?"
Lessa looked a bit uncomfortable as she glanced at the steaming pool she'd just climbed out of. "Well you could say this is very special water. It has cleansing properties. We'll need a bucket full to wash down Socrates, then I've got something to show you."
It didn't take long to clean Lessa's blood from the zebra. When they'd finished the black and white of the unusual animal gleamed. Glowing white set off by rich black; dripping water the creature looked truly magnificent. The water had a different effect on the archer's appearance. While she was physically healed, Gabrielle noted that water made the Lessa's armor creak loudly and gave her a rather rumpled appearance. She couldn't help laughing to herself.
"What's so funny?" Lessa asked. Sending Socrates off to forage in the foliage with a playful slap on the rump.
"It's nothing. Just that every time I look at you- you seem to be drenched for some reason. Do your clothes ever get a chance to fully dry?"
Lessa joined in her laughter, "not lately, that's for sure." With a smile she took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her towards a thick stand of trees, "this is what I want to show you."
A short distance from the pool and hot spring the rock wall opened to a small entrance to a cave. There was a short barrier in front, but easily stepped over, of carved stone, with a torch resting near the opening. Symbols were carved around the opening, simple on the sides, very ornate at the top.
"This is the temple of Aphrodite?" Gabrielle asked.
Lessa nodded, "not just any temple, Gabrielle. I have it on very good authority that this is her favorite temple."
"This is where you said Xena would meet us- right? Can we go in?"
Lessa put a restraining hand on the bard's shoulder. "Not so fast, my friend. First you must ask permission. There are candles inside. They start just inside the entrance and follow the twisting tunnel all the way inside the cave. What you have to do is light that torch, put it in the holder here," she pointed to an indention carved in the doorway, "think about why you would want to enter this temple, what offering you might give, if the candles light- you're welcome to enter, if they don't," Lessa shrugged, "it'd be healthiest to stay away in that case."
Gabrielle nodded. "Mind repeating the part about offerings?"
"Well, Aphrodite is the Goddess of"
"Love." Gabrielle replied.
"So think about that- I'm sure that'll be acceptable."
Gabrielle returned to her bag to pick up her flint and tinder. As usually happened when she tried to start a fire she thought of the first night she'd spent in the company of Xena. She smiled at that distant memory. She'd been determined to follow the brave warrior no matter what. Choosing to leave an arranged marriage to Perdikus, her sister Lilla, her family, and village behind. She'd had romantic ideas at first, about seeing the world and recording wondrous adventures for future generations. That first night however was anything but romantic. Xena had warned her to stay away, so she tried to be discrete. She'd watched from a distance as the strong woman set up camp. First she scouted the perimeter, picking up wood for her fire. She had killed a fat duck that night and was roasting it over her fire. Gabrielle's mouth still watered at the memory. She'd forgotten to bring any food in her enthusiasm at leaving and was feeling ravenous. From her hidden place she'd watched Xena remove her armor, a series of cuts and bruises were healing slowly on her back, arms and legs. Finally the warrior set down her blanket and began to eat. Gabrielle had already had made several futile attempts at a fire and she was cold. Cold, hungry, and desperately wanting the companionship of the woman sitting by that fire eating roasted duck she approached.
Xena hadn't seemed too keen about her company at first, but the icy facade slowly began to melt. Xena laughed at her stories, taught her so many things- some lessons were quite deliberate, like starting a fire. Some she suspected the warrior didn't even know she was teaching the bard, like strategy, and loyalty. Before the first cycle of the moon had passed, she felt closer to this woman than she'd ever felt to anyone. A part of Gabrielle knew that Xena had felt it too. Even when she was angry with the warrior, or scared, or otherwise preoccupied- there was a connection there that was as Xena had said- bound them closer than blood ever could. This woman was the other half of her soul and she would stay with her, forever.
Gabrielle hadn't realized she was lighting the torch until a burst of fire shot into the cave. Like a wave, a flame lit the first candle then jumped to the next and so on traveling on each side of the opening until the disappeared out of sight around a bend int he tunnel. Moments later a warm eerie glow filled the entrance, like glowing earth. Lessa whistled appreciatively. "I think that is a resounding welcome, Gabrielle. Lets go in."
Gabrielle cautiously followed the archer through the entrance. The passage way was narrow, maybe four feet wide and gently sloped downward. The air was surprisingly comfortable for a cave, warm but fresh, not stuffy. The tunnel twisted back upon itself and in moments Gabrielle could no longer see the entrance. There was enough light to see but unusual shadows danced everywhere. As they walked in silence, Gabrielle couldn't help but notice how at ease the archer was here. She carried a satchel around her shoulder and from time to time she stopped to right a fallen candle, or replace one that was nearly exhausted. Finally the passage opened up into a circular chamber. It didn't have a high ceiling, twelve feet at most and was easily fifteen feet in diameter. Every flat rock surface along the walls were covered with candles. Thin curtains of silicate rock hung in dizzying patterns from the cavern ceiling reflecting the candle light, bathing the entire room in a warm glow. With a gasp that caught in her throat Gabrielle stared openly as Lessa turned around. The candle light reflected off the archer's hair hypnotically, her green eyes almost glowing in the warm candle light.
"Yes, I know." Lessa smiled with a shrug diffusing a potentially awkward situation, "it looks interesting in candle light." Gabrielle cast her eyes down, wanting to look any where but at the archer when she noticed shallow circular indentations that were interconnected, along the edge of the cavern. Gabrielle counted ten of them, with one extra large one at the far side. Two things however dominated the chamber, an area of the floor strewn with soft looking furs and a stone pit. Water cascaded into the pit, then from the pit it headed through a channel underground. There was a ledge in the pit, similar to the hot pool they'd camped at last night, only this pit was empty of water, save what passed through the channel. Lessa quickly made way around the chamber, checking various niches in the rock, standing up candles that had fallen over, and replacing several that had all but burnt down. Finally she extracted a wooden plank from an indentation in the rock and inserted the plank into the rock pit. It easily slid into place and when it did, the water no longer spilled down through the floor. It stayed where it was. The pit was beginning to fill.
"This is a temple?" Gabrielle asked finally.
"Of course it's a temple. Granted it might not look like most temples, but believe me- Aphrodite pays very close attention to what goes on in here."
"So where's the alter. Where do you leave offerings?"
Lessa was busy with the slowly filling water pit but nodded in the direction of the furs. "Over there."
Curious Gabrielle picked up a corner of several large furs and peered underneath. Sure enough, she saw a slab of pure white marble set into the floor. It was warm to the touch.
"Hot spring keeps it warm." Lessa said. "Like the water here. Now listen carefully to me Gabrielle - this is important." The bard reluctantly turned back to face Lessa. Fortunately she was standing mostly in shadow- her green eyes still radiated, but the effect was less distracting. She spoke quietly, the sound echoing musically around the room, but the gravity of her words was crystal clear. "From the moment this pit is full of water, you'll be allowed twelve hours in here. It takes an hour for each of these tiny bowls to fill." Lessa pointed to the ten circular indentations in the floor. "Water will spill over the edge of the pit here," she pointed, "and go into the first bowl then the next and so on. When the water gets to that large one by the alter, you've got two hours left. What ever you do- don't wear out your welcome."
"What is it you expect me to do in here?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled by Lessa's urgency.
"That isn't my business, although I might have my suspicions. Look, enjoy the bath, enjoy the safety I don't care. Gabrielle, you're here with Aphrodite's blessing. This chamber is yours for the next twelve hours no harm will come to you, whatever you choose to do or not to do is your own decision. Weapons however are strictly not allowed. I'll keep an eye on your stuff outside. Xena should be here soon, after fighting Famine, Hatred and Despair- I'd think she might want a nice hot bath too. I'll leave the water skin here." she set it into a hole near the pit, "It will stay cold here. Also here's some food in case you get hungry- Look Gabrielle, you saved my life, this is the least I can do- to tell you about this place. You entered this temple in the right frame of mind, you can't possibly make any mistakes in here." Lessa turned to go and as an after thought added, "there's some nice smelling salts behind that rock ledge- and some soap. I'd use them if I were you. No offense but we did have to dispatch Pestilence." With a smile she was gone.
It didn't take Xena long to follow Socrates' trail to the place where the bard and archer had battled the demon of Pestilence. The stench still lingered in the air, most prominent at a burnt patch of ground. The warrior stooped to pick up a small crossbow bolt. "The work of Hesphestus," she muttered to herself. A few feet away lay another, she picked it up as well and continued. Now the trail was even easier to follow, patches of blood drying on the forrest floor, like signposts. Concerned for Gabrielle's safety she urged Argo forward, traveling as fast as she dared and followed.
Gabrielle let out a low sigh as she eased herself into the steaming water. Her eyes fully adjusted to the candle light, she let them wander around the cave. Easily it was the most beautiful cave she'd ever seen, colors rich and inviting patterns of rock impossibly intricate. Even the air was warm and freshly fragrant. Fragrant- there was a hint of something displeasurable and Gabrielle knew it was her. Lessa had been right- the stench of Pestilence hung like glue. Reaching behind her she found a leather sack, opening it she could smell the clean scent of sea salt and herbs. Taking several large handfuls she deposited them into the water. Returning the satchel to it's niche she picked up the soap and set to removing all traces of Pestilence.
Xena quickly dismounted at the sight of Socrates, eyes widening slightly. The animal was positively gleaming. The zebra raised her head and nickered in friendly greeting at the warrior's approach. "So we're friends now?" Xena asked as she walked over.
"It takes her awhile to get to know people- unless they have unusually disarming personalities."
"Where's Gabrielle." Xena asked, turning to face the archer standing behind her. She was surprised to find the woman virtually gleaming as well. Other than a torn shirt, she looked positively radiant.
"She's fine Xena," Lessa replied to the warrior's unspoken question. "I'll take you to her. I hope you didn't have too much trouble with Ares' thugs?"
"They're gone." Xena replied dryly, following the archer through the trees. "I did have an interesting conversation with Ares though. He doesn't like you."
Lessa smiled, "I wouldn't say he's particularly good at making friends. Kind of a control freak, if you know what I mean." Lessa stopped at the cave entrance. "She's in there, waiting for you."
Xena looked at the symbols of warning surrounding the door, the eyed the archer suspiciously. "Is what Ares said true?"
"There will be time to answer your questions later." Lessa replied gently. "Right now there is someone who needs your attention more. Leave me your weapons and armor, I'll keep an eye on things out here. You'll be safe."
Torn between wanting answers immediately and wanting to know Gabrielle was safe, Xena stood indecisive for the briefest moment. Then she removed her chakram, handing it to the archer then unbuckled the belt that held her scabbard in place. Her breast plate followed. "Would you see to Argo?" Xena asked as she stepped into the cave entrance.
"Of course Xena." Lessa replied, giving her shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "But I ask one thing in return." She gazed easily into the warrior's bright blue eyes. "Be as honest with yourself as you are with Gabrielle." With a final grin she turned and headed back through the trees. Xena took a deep breath and walked forward, into the warm glow of candle light.
She approached silently, out of habit and smiled at the sounds of water and of Gabrielle humming. Breathing deeply she picked up pleasing scent of herbs, melting wax and Gabrielle. Rounding a final bend in the tunnel she stood breathless as the cavern opened up before her. Candles everywhere casting a warm glow throughout the room but no where was the effect as inspiring as the light reflected off of Gabrielle's skin. Leaning back in the steaming water, neck arched eyes closed with her arms stretched out on the rock rim of the pit, relaxed, Xena was too overcome with emotion to move. "By the gods, you are beautiful." Xena whispered.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, and smiled. "As I recall I said that to you once."
Xena nodded moving closer, "but you were high on nut-bread at the time."
"That's not why I said it, Xena." Gabrielle stood, water streaming off of her body and held out her hand to the warrior. "Join me."
Xena crossed the cavern and stood, drinking the sight of Gabrielle with hungry eyes. Stepping onto the outer ledge of the pit Gabrielle cupped Xena's face with gentle hands drawing the warrior's lips to her own. Like ice, every doubt, every second thought, every preconceived notion of her relationship with Gabrielle melted away. Gods be dammed, her past was not going to keep her from this love, she had fought countless battles for so much less. She would not be denied the one who had already vanquished her and saved her in the process.
Breaking away from the kiss, Gabrielle smiled. "Turn around." It was a command, not a request.
"Why?" Xena asked softly, not wanting to take her eyes from the bard's face.
Gabrielle laughed, a lyrical soft laugh. "So I can undress you, silly. The laces are in the back, remember?"
Xena complied, feeling at first the familiar sensations as Gabrielle untied the leather dress. When it was removed her body shuddered at the sensation of dripping wet hands, splaying across the skin of her back. Water dripped down, Gabrielle's hands following it until Xena felt Gabrielle's hands at her boots, removing those as well. With slightly trembling hands, she turned Xena back around and led her into the warm steaming pit. A huge grin eased across the warrior's face as she was surrounded by the hot water. Gabrielle was glad she was sitting because her knees went week at the sight, as they usually did. Picking up the soap she glided through the water to Xena. Under the steaming surface she felt Xena's strong hands rest on her hips as she approached, guiding her closer, slowly easing up her abdomen, gentle and confident her eyes never leaving those of the bard. Working the soap into a healthy lather between her hands Gabrielle reached for Xena, smiling as her sudsy fingers slipped across the warriors skin, grateful to disguise the trembling of her hands.
"Watch it." Xena warned as the caress began to tickle and that was all the encouragement needed.
From outside the cave, Lessa lifted her head from her sewing as she mended her shirt at the sounds of uproarious laughter coming from within. "In the temple of Aphrodite, they decide to get into a tickle fight?" She said out loud, frowning at the amused nickers from the relaxing equines a short distance away. "Oh yeah, like you two are the real experts." She shrugged returning to her sewing.
The laughter subsided, giving way to tenderness as Gabrielle insisted on washing Xena's hair. While it eased some of the awkward tension that permeated the cavern whenever their eyes met- it also served to build a steady wave of passion Xena feared would consume her. As she sat, the luxurious feel of the bard's hands as her neck scalp and back were massaged, she could also feel herself flooding with desire. Desperately she wanted to consume the flesh of her soul. To know every part, hear every sigh of pleasure to make her feel with the same intensity that raged through Xena at the bard's slightest touch. The breasts against her back, sliding against her skin, the gentle fingers, the light kisses on her ear- there was no way Gabrielle could know what this was doing to her. Not unless she showed her. With surprisingly strong hands, Gabrielle pushed Xena's head under water for a final rinse.
As she broke the surface she felt hands on her shoulders, holding her down.With only her head above water, Gabrielle had Xena pinned. She panted from the earlier exertion as well as something else. "I've got you Xena!" Xena sat on the low ledge, Gabrielle standing in the water above her, looking down, looking powerful. Desire continued its powerful burn at her center, her eyes darkened and narrowed, a slight curl to her smile. "Don't even think about it." Gabrielle warned, her own expression hungry. "I have you&; and I'm going to take you." She leaned into Xena, kissing her fiercely, easing a tentative hand between her legs. Xena jumped as probing fingers reached her center.
"Gabrielle!" She gasped, stunned at the bards advance. She'd imagined making love to Gabrielle many times, but hadn't ever imagined the bard making the first move. New torrents of desire washed over her and she feared she'd orgasm before the bard even touched her.
"I want you Xena." Gabrielle said softly, eyes pleading. "I've wanted you forever. Please Xena, show me how to take you. Show me how to please you. Teach me"
The words rushed over Xena like nothing she'd ever heard before. For this woman she'd fight all of Tarterus, she'd defy every occupant of Mount Olympus, she'd hold back nothing. For the first time that she could remember, she felt utterly defenseless- and was glad of it.
Xena slowly rose out of the water bringing Gabrielle with her. Standing together in the middle of the pit, she took the bard in her arms. "Gabrielle, I've loved you for so long." She whispered fiercely, "I"
Her words died Gabrielle pulled away and gently put a silencing finger to the warrior's lips. "Show me, Xena."
Xena smiled, a lopsided grin brimming with love. Now she would be denied nothing. Drawing Gabrielle to her once more, she easily lifted the bard and carried her from the pool to the furs nearby. Slowly kneeling, she kept the bard in her arms and hungry lips descended on Gabrielle's mouth. Slowly, so slowly she did not even realize it as it happened, she was lowered the rest of the way on to the soft furs. Xena took her time delighting in the soft mouth so welcoming to her own, the feel of a velvet tongue intertwining with her own; each sensation was savored. Lips never leaving Gabrielle's, Xena's hands trailed down the bard's body leaving a wave of desire in their wake.
A whimper escaped the bard's lips as Xena's mouth shifted to her throat. "Yes Xena," she whispered as strong hands cupped her breasts, "Oh, Gods- more"
More?! Xena thought as her mouth trailed down to the bard's breasts, wetness flooding through her. Does she have any idea what's she's doing to me. As if in answer she felt Gabrielle's hands on her back as her fingers curled, blunt nails digging into the muscles of her back. It had been Xena's intention to take her time, to make each gentle caress count- but Gabrielle's responses were making that wish a fantasy. Each low moan, each pleading whimper the commanding sighs all of these threatened to rob Xena not only of her senses, but of her restraint as well.
Driven wild by another small cry that reverberated inside the warm cavern Xena shifted, easing a powerful thigh between the bards legs. "Oooohhhh" Xena purred as her skin slid against wetness that was not drying water from either of their bodies. Gabrielle pressed herself against the muscles of Xena's leg even as the warrior rolled over. Straddling Xena's leg now looking down into radiant blue eyes, hungry with desire, Gabrielle smiled as she slowly rocked her hips back and forth, smearing the warrior with slick wetness. Reaching out with both hands she cupped Xena's breasts even as she arched forward to claim the bard's mouth once more. Still writing against her thigh, Gabrielle pushed Xena back down. Gazing down she couldn't help but smile. She never wanted to forget the look on the warrior's face. The hunger, the passion the unabashed love she read there; it was one of those rare moments when you realize how perfect it is, even as it's happening.
With tentative lips she descended upon Xena's breasts, growing more confident as a nipple hardened in her mouth and she felt as well as heard Xena gasp. "Yes Gabrielle, perfect." She had thought she'd reached the limits of arousal, but she was wrong. As the bard moved her lips against her breasts and wriggled her body against her flesh, Xena was at the breaking point. She had to possess the bard now, to drive her to the heights she herself was flying at.
Another roll and she hovered Gabrielle once again. Trailing kisses down the bard's muscular abdomen, touching lightly with feather light fingers she didn't stop until she reached the soft down at the apex of Gabrielle's legs. Xena kissed the indent of Gabrielle's hip, smiling at the pleasured whimper she caused. Gabrielle relaxed her legs, allowing Xena to part them with gentle hands. When she kissed her other hip, she felt a gentle but firm shove at the top of her head. "Are you trying to tell me something, Gabrielle?" Xena teased gently.
The intensity of hunger in the look Gabrielle gave her wiped the smile from Xena's lips. "Xena, I want you to take me with your mouth, take me with your hands. I want you to utterly possess me. Own me Xena, now!" Gabrielle's voice as well as her words, husky in their need had vanquished Xena again. She was the bards to command. Gently lowering her mouth to Gabrielle's entrance she paused a moment hovering over the velvety folds, teasing them with her breath, inhaling the intoxicating sweetness. "Yes!" Gabrielle panted thrusting her hips upward and breaking the bounds of Xena's restraint.
Sliding her tongue through velvety warmth, lapping up the nectar that abounded there, Xena feasted. Distantly Xena could hear Gabrielle's cries of pleasure as they reverberated in the cavern. She felt rather than heard the pants, the endearments as the bards body moved beneath her. Xena possessed all of Gabrielle, from curious exploration with her lips and tongue to artful mastering. The bard cried out as Xena's tongue circled the tight bundle of nerves at her center, massaging her to glorious climax. Xena felt shaking hands at the top of her head, holding her there as the quaking subsided. Finally Gabrielle's hands dropped to her sides, but still Xena did not move. Not moving her lips or tongue she simply held Gabrielle, and waited. When the muscle spasms stopped completely and the bards breathing evened, she moved. Gently thrusting her tongue deep inside of Gabrielle's entrance, she felt her lover's body respond again.
"Ooohhhh Gods." Gabrielle groaned, hips bucking against Xena's face. In moments she was again riding the crest of climax. This time however, when Gabrielle's quakes were done she let go. Gently easing herself up the bards body, she rested her thigh between Gabrielle's legs. Gazing into the young woman's face, she was surprised to see tears streaming from her eyes.
"Gabrielle- is something wrong?" She asked concerned. Gabrielle opened her eyes, beaming with love at the warrior, her warrior. She tenderly touched Xena's face, slick with her wetness.
"Xena," She whispered, "I love you so much it hurts."
Happier than she had ever been in her life, Xena rolled over and held Gabrielle, first as she cried unhindered tears of happiness, then as she slept. Xena herself did not expect to drop off, but she did. So at peace, she hardly noticed when sleep overtook her. It wasn't until she felt gentle caressing drift over her body that she awoke. Lazy, peaceful, with blissful slowness Xena eased out of unconsciousness. When the gentle touches extended to her inner thighs, she was fully awake, eyes open.
"Feeling jumpy Xena?" Gabrielle teased, her loose hair easing across the warrior's abdomen as the bard kissed her breasts.
"Lovin' every moment of it." She whispered. Her hand tracing lazy patterns across Gabrielle's back.
"Good." Gabrielle murmured into Xena's sternum as she began her descent.
"Ooooohhh, ah." Xena's eyes widened in surprise when the uncertain tentative touches to her sex as she anticipated didn't happen. Abruptly, powerfully Gabrielle's lips descended on Xena's center. And just as quickly they backed off.
"Noooooo." Xena groaned as Gabrielle teased her with her mouth. For long moments she kissed her passionately, reveling in the scents and textures beneath her tongue. The closer Xena got to climax, the more Gabrielle shifted to teasing Xena in all of these wondrous place. Finally when she could feel all of Xena's muscles convulse she lifted her head, and shifted position. Replacing her mouth with nimble fingers she gazed down at Xena as she began to pant forcefully.
"Open your eyes, Xena." She commanded, "I want to watch."
Xena opened her eyes and held Gabrielle's loving gaze. Between pants she managed, "yes Gab&;reille, perfect. Inside" The bard inserted two fingers then a third into Xena's coral opening. "Yes," she gasped, not flinching from her lover's gaze. "More Gabrielle&; harder." Gabrielle's eyes widened at the flood of wetness beneath her hand, she moved in rhythm with Xena, matching the force of the warrior's body stroke for stroke. Xena continued to hold Gabrielle's gaze, "Yes&; I need &; just&; one" With a final thrust Gabrielle felt powerful muscles clamp down on her fingers. The shudder of orgasm racing through her body, exquisite spasm after exquisite spasm rocked through her, turning her blood to sliver. "Ooooohhhhhhh" Xena finally sighed as her muscles relaxed. Gabrielle held her there, warm and comforting basking in the glow of intimacy that bathed them both. Slowly, gently the bard extracted her hand, smiling at her lover.
"How?" Xena panted, looking at Gabrielle, awed expression on her face.
Slowly Gabrielle brought her hand to her lips and slipped her fingers in her mouth. "You're a good teacher." She purred, as Xena sat up, consumed by her desire once more.
"You must be pleased with yourself."
Lessa jumped at the sound, sticking herself with her sewing needle. "Ow!" She put her bleeding finger in her mouth and turned around furiously. "Cupid! I hate it when you sneak up on me."
Cupid shrugged, taking a seat next to his sister. "I could have been one of them."
"Not bloody likely. They've only been in there for a few hours. I don't expect to see any sign of them until sun-up at the earliest. I had the perfection of this sunset all to myself." For a moment he looked out over the shining blue ocean. This was indeed a perfect sunset.
He looked at his sister, her dark hair reflecting the burning brilliance of the sun as it reflected off of the expanse of ocean. She seemed so at home here. Her hair like the sunset, the black and green of her armor reflecting the living forrest behind them. Her fragrance even, the clean smells of sea and earth. She did not belong in any village, and now she never would. "You can't go back you know." He said quietly.
"I know." She grinned. "It's okay- I never wanted to anyway. We are what we are and it's pointless to try to pretend otherwise."
"But you could have had a regular life. Family, friends, no deities chasing after you" He said, putting a gentle arm around his sister. Lessa leaned in close, gazing at the sunset.
"You are my family, brother dear. And I have friends- I know I'll be on Xena's good side for eternity. As for the rest," she shrugged, "it's worth it. Ares would hate me anyway, I am my mother's daughter."
"Not quite." Cupid murmured.
"Okay, so I'm not an air head. But at least this way I've earned Ares' displeasure, and after this- I think his respect as well."
Cupid laughed at that. It was so like Stacy to belittle the wrath of an angry God. "What you've chosen to do is very right. You know I feel that. It's just that it's a choice you didn't have to make. I don't really need the help. You're taking an unnecessary risk"
"But Cupid, you do need the help." She took his large hand in hers, feeling very small compared to her brother. "This proves it." She nodded in the direction of the cave. "You might be the God of love, but you don't understand every relationship. I know I don't. So maybe I understand some things you don't- I do have a different frame of reference after all. You'll still have to do the bulk of the dirty work- but from time to time, I think you might come across a special case that needs my expertise." She looked up into is brilliant blue eyes and smiled, "I don't mean to hurt you. I know how fragile the male ego is."
Cupid smiled, shaking his head. It was a wonder Lessa hadn't ended up on the business end of a lightning bolt already- she had that knack. "I don't feel threatened by you in the slightest. So you're a better shot with the bow, you can sweet talk Hermes out of a pony, you can get Hesphestus to build you weapons, insult Ares and live- but you're also my sister who is afraid of bugs and snakes and there isn't anything I wouldn't do for you."
"Socrates is not a pony." Lessa smiled, eyes shining. "You know Cupid- it's your fault I'm not the least bit interested in men."
"Because I demand that they be warm, charming, sensitive, intelligent, and funny. But then they remind me of my brother so I think eeeeewwww." Lessa said giving him a fierce hug.
"I feel so honored." Cupid replied dryly, kissing the top of her head. "So what's going to happen to them?" He asked releasing her.
"Xena and Gabrielle?" Lessa glanced in the direction of the cave, then returned her eyes to the sunset. "The usual. Occasionally they'll both curse the day they met me, ultimately they will know in their hearts that for each other they are the greatest treasure in the universe." Lessa sighed, "Gabrielle will continue to grow, forcing Xena to do the same, like it or not. She will be frustrated from time to time by Xena's gift of understatement. I heard she once described Mount Olympus as 'big'. Xena will learn more about giving than I think she ever wanted to know. Giving up on some independence, responsibility- letting someone care for her and occasionally take care of her. I think she will be surprised when she realizes it makes her a stronger person, not to mention less edgy."
"I see you've thought about this." Cupid commented, standing and extending a hand to his sister to do the same. "So what's next for you?" He asked as they walked along the edge of the cliff.
Lessa grimaced. "I still have to deal with Callisto. Everything I told Xena was true." Cupid raised an eyebrow. "Well mostly true. She did kidnap me and expected me to kill Gabrielle. I needed something believable to have a real reason to travel with them. I should see that she gets put back in prison where she belongs."
"I don't know. Travel some, maybe. I'm sure there are people out there that could use my services."
Cupid rolled his eyes skyward. "I don't suppose you'd let me contact you when I need your help- as opposed to you deciding for me."
"Cupid! How many attempts did you botch with these two? After that last stupid plan of yours I had to step in." Seeing the look of hurt crossing his face she amended, "I mean that in the nicest way of course. Lets just see how it goes, shall we?"
"Alright, alright." Cupid raised his hands surrendering. "I've got time for dinner, then I've got to go. Lets talk about something else."
Lessa smiled triumphantly as they walked back to the fire pit. "So, how's Psyche?"
"You are so beautiful." Gabrielle sighed as she looked down at Xena's face. Finally free to touch the warrior at will, her hands continued with their ceaseless exploration. Delicate fingers caressed the warrior's face, pulling themselves through her rich mane of dark hair. "I can't believe this is actually happening. That this isn't just a dream I'll wake up from, like so many others."
"It's real Gabrielle." Xena said softly, looking up into her lovers eyes. Drawing a gentle finger down the bard's cheek she drew her in for a kiss. Warm and slow and sweet she was certain she'd never tire of kissing Gabrielle's lips- or any other part of her anatomy for that matter.
"When did you realize you loved me?" The bard asked, as she shifted her position to lay on top the warrior. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's small frame;wishing she'd never have to let go.
But I ask one thing in return. Lessa's words came back to Xena as clearly as if she were in the cave whispering to her, Be as honest with yourself as you are with Gabrielle. Xena thought for a moment, it was hard to remember a time when she did not feel love for Gabrielle burning in her heart. "A very long time ago. I'd had&; feelings&; for you since I'd met you, but after you left me to go home, I knew it was much more."
"So why didn't you ever tell me?" Gabrielle whispered into the warrior's chest, sighing at the feel of Xena's strong hands on her back.
"I didn't want to risk loosing you. I knew you felt something for me, but I thought it was different. Besides, with me you're a target for all who hate me. I always assumed you'd eventually tire of the 'adventure' and settle down."
"I'm glad we've gotten past that." Gabrielle murmured, trailing soft kisses across Xena's chest. "I love you more than anything Xena, danger is nothing if I can be with you&; and as long as I'm going to be in danger anyway," She closed her mouth on a soft nipple, "at least this way I have the pleasure of sharing your heart&; and body."
Xena smiled, delighting in the delicious sensations coursing through her veins. "Both belong to you Gabrielle, do with them what you will."
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked around the cave. The air had stayed wonderfully warm. Heated by the water from the pit, she quickly counted the full bowls cut into the cave floor. Nine were full of the steaming water. Between lovemaking and dozing, then awaking again to delight in the pleasures of the flesh, Gabrielle had lost all track of time.
"I know exactly when I fell in love with you." Gabrielle continued conversationally as she moved to Xena's other breast.
"I mean I was infatuated from the moment I saw you, but it was the moment after you rescued the baby- King Gregor's heir, that I realized that I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with you." Gabrielle lifted herself off of Xena's body, moving down slightly, trailing kisses and soft bites across Xena's muscular abdomen. "Of course I didn't start craving you physically until that time in the well"
"The nutbread?" Xena purred, eyes closing with pleasure as Gabrielle squirmed between her legs, teasing the insides of her thighs with soft caresses.
"Um humm." Gabrielle breathed into the soft curly mound, smiling as a shudder swept through the warrior's body. "It was so clear to me then, touching you and climbing up your body; warm and wonderful, Xena you are magnificent."
Xena felt it then, the soft lips pressing against her center, velvety tongue caressing her in ways that truly were magnificent.
The time spent in the cave infused Xena with more healing than she knew she'd ever deserve. The glorious creature who had shared her life and her heart for so long now possessed shared her soul as well and Xena new she'd never felt happier. Tender, gentle, loving, Xena could be all of these things for Gabrielle and even more she could enjoy the stillness of reclining in the bards arms, allowing herself to be touched, to be kissed, to be loved. Immensely grateful, she was still curious at the sense of wonder Gabrielle had for her body. She wanted to know the story behind every scar and paid very close attention to the touches that turned Xena to water.
"Don't want to move." Gabrielle murmured hours later, reclining on Xena, one arm reaching over her head caressing long dark hair absently, her other hand stroking the warrior's arm as it rested across her stomach.
"So don't move." Xena whispered delighting again in the scent of the bard's hair.
Gabrielle sighed, "but we have to." She pointed across the cave floor. "The last bowl is filling. We have to be out before it's full."
Xena nodded reluctantly. She didn't even want to fathom the wrath of Aphrodite. "Think we have time for another bath?" Xena asked, accepting Gabrielle's hand and standing.
"I think so." Gabrielle slipping her arm around Xena's waist as they walked the few steps to the steaming pit. Xena entered first then held out her arms as the bard descended into the warmth of her embrace as well as the water.
Tender endearments were murmured as each lovingly bathed the other. Each caress a promise of more, a lifetime of more, each kiss a gladly given vow. Finding a soft blanket behind the pit they dried each other, happy exhausted and completely content. Finally dressed once more, Gabrielle removed the plank closing off the pit and the water slowly descended into the depths of the cave. Arm in arm warrior and bard walked past the flickering candles into the cool air of a new dawn.
Standing for a moment at the cave entrance, looking out to the sunrise over the ocean both women paused in the perfection of the moment. "Nice timing." A gentle voice teased behind them. Turning around they saw the archer cooking something over the fire, smiling at them. She stood in greeting, and after a quick squeeze of her arm around Xena's waist, Gabrielle walked over to Lessa and hugged her, kissing her quickly on the mouth. "Thank you." She said beaming.
Surprised, not to mention pleased, Lessa smiled. "No, thank you." Then with a grin to Xena asked "So you gonna kiss me too?"
"Not likely." Xena replied dryly.
Lessa shrugged. "No matter. Breakfast is ready."
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked looking suspiciously at the golden discs cooking on hot rocks.
"Something I call waffles, I think you'll like 'em." Lessa handed Gabrielle a flat stick she'd been using to nudge the discs for even cooking. "Don't let 'em burn, I'll go close up the cave."
Gabrielle took the stick and watched her go, then noticed Xena's eyes on her. "You know you'll feel better if you thank her." Gabrielle said gently. Xena sighed, the bard had a tendency for being right. Shaking her head she followed Lessa into the cave. Upon entering the main cavern she stopped in the shadows and watched the archer silently.
Lessa had busied herself with tending to the chamber. She straightened the furs over the alter, made sure the plank for the pit was where it belonged, checked the temperature of the water spilling into the it and returned the water skin to it's proper place. "You might as well come out Xena, I know you're here." Xena stepped from the shadow's as Lessa turned to face her.
Blue eyes widening in surprise, Xena was for a moment speechless at the sight of Lessa in the glow of the candle lit cave. In this setting it was clear that she was indeed standing before a Goddess.
"I've got the warrior princess speechless? I think I'll keep this outfit." Lessa said with a gentle smile.
"I'm sorry." Xena replied, "I didn't mean to stare. I want to thank you."
"Thank me? Whatever for?"
"For this." Xena replied, taking in the cave with her eyes.
Lessa looked at Xena for a long moment before responding. Clearly she was debating about how much to tell the statuesque warrior. "Xena, I want to make something perfectly clear. I don't have the power to make people fall in love. I'm not like my brother. My only talent is in recognizing when people are indeed in love, but perhaps not acting on it." Her eyes softened as she continued, "I know how you feel about Gods in general, and how you feel about a few of us specifically. I don't need to tell you that your relationship with Ares you wrought yourself, and you know that Gabrielle had no part in it. Let me also assure you that the woman you have become is indeed making a difference. Gabrielle will not be judged for sins of the old Xena. She is&;protected from your past to a certain extent. Of course the life the two of you lead now&; that's fair game. I can promise you that I will not let Gabrielle be made to pay for something you did before you met her."
"For that I owe you everything- and I'm not sure I can owe a God&;
"You owe me nothing Xena. This is between Gabrielle and me." Lessa tossed her long mane of gleaming hair over her shoulder. The reflections were hypnotic. "I'd treat her well if I were you. I'm kind of sweet on the bard, and I'll be watching."
Xena nodded mutely, blinking her eyes against the splendor of Ecstacy in her element. "Are you going to kiss me now or not? It might just bring you luck."
Xena smiled, resistance is futile she thought as she stepped toward the Goddess. Placing an uncertain hand on each side of Lessa's face she leaned in and covered her lips with her own. Her lips were soft, warm and beat with a vibrant pulse. As Xena pulled back she could feel a tingling persist on her own mouth. All in all the kiss was considerably more chaste than the warrior had expected.
"Well I don't bite after all." Lessa muttered reading the warrior's thoughts. The two headed to the exit of the cave.
"What about the candles?" Xena asked.
"I almost forgot." Lessa blew into the air behind her and the candles at the back wall extinguished themselves, slowly moving around the sides of the cave and following but only as Xena and Lessa passed, the last one going out as they stepped through the cave opening.
"I still think you're a show-off." Xena muttered.
"This is Ambrosia!" Gabrielle exclaimed delighting in her fourth waffle.
"Not quite." Lessa shrugged, "Ambrosia has more of a poultry flavor- like chicken."
"Very funny 'Stacy." Gabrielle chided.
"I'd rather you call me Lessa."
"But I've never been on a first name basis with a Goddess before."
"Suite yourself." the Goddess of Passion shrugged, tossing an apple to Socrates and reaching for the syrup. "Overrated experience isn't it?" She asked looking at Xena who, mouth full of her own waffle, nodded.
"So you were saying," Gabrielle continued, "that Cupid has in fact tried to get us together?"
"And how." Lessa agreed. "Let me see, he realized he didn't need an arrow when your heart exploded after that King Gregor thing." Gabrielle blushed slightly, "and he, quite frankly was afraid to shoot you" Lessa frowned at Xena, "thought he'd get that round killing thingie imbedded in his back for the trouble."
"Chakram." Xena said.
"Bless you." Lessa continued, "so helping out Callisto with her target practice and pegging you with that dart- that was supposed to do the trick."
"How, I was unconscious?"
"Yes but someone," Lessa glared at Gabrielle, "was supposed to open up a bit more about her feelings when you recovered. Then there was the Temple at Thesilie." This time Xena looked away, embarrassed. "Someone else was supposed to confess her love to a certain someone else that the entire temple was painfully aware of." Lessa shook her head. "There have been countless other times Cupid paid the two of you a visit. The Titan's, the nutbread, fishing in the lake. Finally when I heard his latest plan, well I had to step in. It was dreadful."
"What was it?" Gabrielle asked.
"He was going to shoot someone from your past- Perdicus I think his name was. Have him show up and ask for your hand in marriage."
Gabrielle shook involuntarily. "I'm glad you stepped in." then remembering something added, "I thought you said you didn't use arrows?"
"For shooting people- no I don't- but I suppose I could."
"What about that arrow that's in your scabbard?"
"You've been snooping Gabrielle, and it isn't polite to snoop on a God." Lessa frowned. Reaching behind, she picked up her scabbard and extracted the tiny white arrow. "You can have it if you want."
Gabrielle held the arrow, the length of her palm, in careful fingers. It appeared to be crafted from white marble. A sword was etched into one side a feather quill on the other. "It's beautiful," she breathed.
"Thank you. Carved it myself- it helps me think&; and plan." Lessa smiled deviously.
"I'll treasure it always."
Lessa laughed, "If you want Gabrielle, but I wouldn't bother. Your treasure is sitting right in front of you- that- that's just an arrow." Putting two fingers in her mouth Lessa whistled and Socrates came striding over, greeting first Gabrielle then Xena with a playful nudge. "Soc and I have to go. We've got some unfinished business to take care of."
"Callisto." Xena said, it wasn't a question.
Lessa nodded. "Not all of my work is as enjoyable as getting acquainted with the two of you." Xena noticed that Lessa's eyes didn't leave Gabrielle's face as she spoke.
"Will we see you again?" Gabrielle asked.
Lessa smiled, a warm inviting smile, "Absolutely." Then with a grin to the warrior, "but not very often. But I'm sure I'll be thinking of you from time to time, and I suspect you'll feel it when I do."
After quickly hopping up on to Socrates' back she smiled one final time "Be well, you two," and with that she was gone.
"I wonder what she meant about thinking about us?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.
"I don't know." Xena replied splitting the last waffle between them. "I'm sure we'll find out."
Packed and ready for travel Argo stood waiting patiently as Xena and Gabrielle stood arm in arm overlooking the ocean. "You know Xena, I've never been this happy." Gabrielle said, absently turning the marble arrow over in her hands.
"Nor I Gabrielle.," Xena said. Kissing the top of the bards head.
"And you know what else?"
"Lessa was right," Gabrielle turned in Xena's embrace, looking up at her lover with bright eyes. "You are the greatest treasure." With that she tossed the marble arrow over the side of the cliff. It tumbled and turned on it's way to the rocks below, finally shattering with the melodious chime of tiny bells.
"I love you Gabrielle."
"I love you too Xena, and you're right," Gabrielle looked down to where the ringing of the shattered arrow continued, "she is a show-off."
Smiling the lovers turned from the cliff, heading for Argo- and the rest of their lives.